I have spent much of my life studying by correspondence, partly because I find it suits my lifestyle choices, and partly because with the illness and disability problems I have, it tends to be what works.
There are complexities regarding organisation, motivation, and time and stress management, which are worth thought. These have changed depending on what is going on in my life. When I was studying Open University short courses while travelling to (very part time) college* at the age of seventeen, neither organisation or motivation were really an issue. I lacked adequate mental stimulation at that time in my life, I only had to remember to take two books in my bag, and the railway journey served as a clear piece of external structure. However, later in life, once I had failed to get a degree studying full time in a conventional way, and attempted instead to do it by correspondence, I started to struggle. The projects were too big and diffuse, and took too long for there to seem any light at the end of the tunnel of actually finishing anything, particularly as I kept needing extensions.
I succeeded in graduating well despite this. But when I signed up for an M.A., I worked in a slightly different way. My course involves two ten week lecture courses (for which there is a lot of reading) and two six-thousand word essays in each of the first two years, and a dissertation in the third year.
Here are some things I’ve used or am trying out. What works is likely to differ for everyone. There’s no point in trying to fix what isn’t broken – no point in trying to focus your concentration if you have no trouble concentrating – and there’s no point in trying to take a “work without interruptions” approach if the reality of your circumstances currently involves caring for a toddler while you study! It’s one thing to say “avoid this if possible, it often helps” another to give up because it isn’t possible. What I’m trying to organise are a lot of very long, complicated projects, and what I’d need to do if I had a lot of short, individual tasks would be different.
Have some sort of motivational chart or book, with rewards for completing a certain length of time or small task. The tasks I do are much too big and too long for them to seem as if they have an end, and if I look at that end I feel overwhelmed. So I have a sticker book and get a star for every hour completed, graduating up from bronze to gold with each hour done (three hours in one day is pushing it for me, as I have limited stamina). I also get a round smiley sticker if I have done a certain number of hours in a week or all the reading for an (online) lecture when a course is running, and a special reward sticker if I have done all the reading for a whole course, a particularly high number of hours a week, or handed in an essay. I also have an effort sticker for meeting a daily challenge (if I’m sick I may only aim to do one hour a day, for example) and one for doing all the day’s housework (more on this later). When I do something, the achievement that I can see immediately is the sticker and what it represents. It is both satisfying and helps reassure me that I am actually getting somewhere and that the overall task does have an end.
If you don’t know from experience, spend a few hours with Myers-Briggs working out what your best study approach is likely to be. The study management guidance we got at school insisted that was somehow better to do your homework instantly when you got home from school, worse to do it after a break and your meal, and positively evil to do it before school in the morning. I can see how they were thinking, but what’s right is what works. If it works better to get up at five in the morning and study for two hours before getting dressed, then so be it. Much better than pushing to work when you come home from school if you’re not an afternoon person. Just try not to be working on homework that’s due in that day, unless you’re the sort of person who finds pushing a tight deadline both conducive to flourishing and the best way of doing excellent work.
One of the pointers Myer-Briggs gave me was that I have a personality type that’s fairly ambivalent about structure. It usually works better for people with my personality type to have some structure but not too much: i.e. a few things at set times and other things done as and when. Myers-Briggs may also give some guidance as to whether you’re likely to do better with silence or surrounded by human activity, multi-tasking or concentrated work, and so on. However, it is guidance – a place to start – not a law of the Medes and Persians which cannot be altered!
Find the right length of time to concentrate for. A lack of external structure may be difficult in a lot of ways, but it does have the advantage that you may be able to work to your own natural, individual rhythms, rather than having them imposed from outside by a timetable of one hour and ten minute periods. If you find that a quarter of an hour on, a quarter off, works better than an hour and ten minutes at once, or that three hours in a row without a break is your best bet, it isn’t constrained by institutional preferences and compromises (only by household circumstances…). I find what works best depends on what type of task I’m doing, so if I’m reading, I need more frequent breaks and a more spread out timetable than if I’m writing. When writing, I find spending longer in one go works better. I used to go to sleep in chemistry lessons at college* because I could only concentrate on learning about the complexities of orbitals or the structure of haemoglobin for about forty minutes at a time. That may be unusually extreme, but one might as well max out all the advantages of the correspondence situation.
Choose a time management technique It may work better to have a timetable (always study from 8-10 in the mornings) or to have a to-do list which includes spending a certain amount of time studying (N.B. I found Julie Morgenstern’s “time management from the inside out” very useful here: she has a lot of different techniques to suit a lot of different styles and circumstances). A lot of work-from-home advice can be usefully applied to study too.
Put everything on the same “to do” list if you have the difficulty of always feeling you should be doing something else. I’ve just set up a cleaning programme called Tody with my housework, and then I added 4 half hours of study to the list for every weekday. It is quite amusing because this means that when I tick off half an hour of foraging around in a concordance and a study Bible it says, “it’s getting cleaner!” But I’m hoping I’ll have less trouble with feeling I should be studying if I do housework, and should be doing housework when I study. It gives me a limited number of housework tasks a day and I don’t feel pressurised by the rest of the housework because I know each task will come up on the list of things to do today in due course. I’ve also put people contact and leisure activities on there to indicate to myself that they are necessary to wellbeing in due proportion as much as doing the washing up is.
Treat human contact as a necessity: people need different amounts of time with others, but we are a social creature, and very few people can be alone for weeks on end without suffering. This is not a problem I’ve managed to solve, but it is one I’m increasingly coming to recognise. I was pretty isolated before lockdown began, between my disabilities and living in a remote place.
Try the same sort of management and planning techniques that are used for work projects: find something that suits the nature of the study you’re doing, and it may help a lot. It’s also a useful transferable skill. (And a way of helping take study seriously as work…). I’ve just drawn up a flow chart for my current (6000) word essay, which includes doing research in a concordance, rereading a couple of texts, checking the institution’s referencing guide before I get as far as referencing, redoing the plan, as the original proposed structure doesn’t quite work, reordering the draft, writing a final draft, proofreading and so on. I’ve still to find a piece of software that’ll do a neat diagram for me. But it helps keep it in order. Breaking down complex projects into specific parts is the only way I can tackle them without them seeming completely overwhelming. The sort of tasks I’m doing probably need project management apps. If it’s a matter of having 15 short tasks each week with different deadlines for different teachers, you might be better served by more of an administrative assistant app. Also – amusingly – Tody (the app I’ve started using for housework and has spread out into other things) will give you deadlines and create task priority lists, if you find that easier than trying to retrieve information from a calendar or diary. As someone with dyslexia/dyspraxia, I find that approach particularly helpful.
Have a study space if possible: even if it is just a small desk under the stairs. Or have a dedicated piece of furniture where all the stuff needed for study is stored, preferably close to where you actually study. If you find it energising to move around and study in different places in the house – or need to sit in different places so you can be on call for children – look for a cabinet on wheels… keep tools organised in a way that works but is mobile. It is worth trying to make it physically easy to study if you can. It isn’t helpful to find that studying means sitting for an hour in a horribly uncomfortable chair with an unpleasant background space and craned over a computer or desk at a bad angle. Yes, one can teach reading by sitting on the ground and drawing letters in the dust, one can learn to read by crouching down and peering at said letters**. And if that is all that can be done it is worth doing. But it isn’t a desirable situation. If you can keep the effort and energy for the study rather than for enduring discomfort, it’s worth doing.
If computers/phones distract you, try minding your inner child with a parental control or productivity app. I don’t have one set up at the moment due to technical problems, but I have found this helped. It meant I had to be aware of it if I was getting distracted. I had one called Salfeld on my computer for a while, which had the immense advantage of being able to set individual limits for my email and Wikipedia, but to be able to access the websites I need for my study indefinitely. However, it was annoyingly buggy from time to time, and didn’t show me where I had got to in my time limits in a simple way. There are also apps that will do something like growing a “tree” which will metaphorically “die” if you do anything with your phone for a certain length of time.
I sometimes feel we have too much of a culture of “oh, we shouldn’t need this stuff, just be disciplined.” Yes, that would be nice, but I’m not. It is the reality. By using some extra tools I can achieve the same end: as there is nothing wrong in itself with the tools, it is appropriate to use them (only avoid the pitfall of spending all time and effort looking for the right tool rather than studying. I’ve found these things rather like what’s said of using nicotine replacement therapy for giving up smoking. It hopefully puts the aim within reach, but it doesn’t necessarily make it easy).
If possible treat study time in the same way as you would a lecture or lesson. At present, I’m using Pomodoro, running it for half an hour with a ten minute break. While it is running I try to avoid doing anything I wouldn’t do if I was attending a lecture. I will take a jumper off or plug the computer in, but I don’t abandon the task to make a hot drink or to put laundry in the washing machine. I’m still working on not answering the phone: it tends to stress me, and there’s no point turning it off because I’d never remember to turn it back on. I find half an hour a good length of time, because it is enough to do concentrated work, but not enough to feel overwhelming.
If you procrastinate about starting, try setting a timer and then aim to be in place to start when it goes off, again, act as you would for a lecture.
Estimate the time needed for each task: (Julie Morgenstern again) this will take practice but it is important.
Understand what stresses you: and look for ways of reducing it. I plan relentlessly because not having a plan tends to result in my stressing about not being on track; and I tend to get confused by all the subsidiary tasks (e.g. checking the referencing guide) as well as about what needs to be done next (I need to do the concordance work before I re-read the philosophical texts). Others find that planning and feeling they have to work to the plan stresses them far more than not having too much of a plan, and find it better not to. There isn’t any right set of things to be stressed by in context. Its down to who you are and how you react to the particular circumstances.
Be realistic about what’s possible. This is a difficult skill, and again, I’d refer people to Julie Morgenstern on time management. The basic idea is to write down an estimate of how long something is going to take and then to time how long it actually does take, until your estimates are usually right. And to do things like adding in the fact that you’re probably going to be interrupted 3 times for an average of ten minutes each in every two hours of work, and therefore can only do an hour and a half on the requisite task in every two hours. Being realistic both helps get stuff done, and reduces stress. Set manageable goals according to your personality. I find I need to achieve my goals most of the time, or I get discouraged. Others may find themselves responsive to more of a challenge, and aim to set goals that are met about 50% of the time. There’s no right or wrong here except what works for you. However, I would be surprised it if helps anyone to set goals that are literally impossible and are never met.
It’s important to get enough rest: another impossibility in the modern world, and a very subjective one, making it difficult to write about. But not in any way a waste of time. Lying on your bed reading a paper book/listening to calming music/watching a bubble lamp, or even sleeping, for half an hour, or taking a long bath, or whatever else, may actually make you more productive when you return to your work. Exercise, too, is important. What I’ve found over the years is that if I study without exercising, my mind gets much more tired than my body, and then I find it (even more) difficult to get the necessary amount of sleep. Also, if you are newly studying, it may cause you to need more sleep than you did before.
Remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve when discouraged: both in practical terms (e.g. better job) and human development terms. As a culture, I feel we undervalue education. I remember being very grieved to come across a programme that was following children in the Andes struggling up and down several hours of difficult and dangerous mountain paths to get themselves to and from school, when I had been volunteering in schools and listening to the teachers telling the children how boring learning was. One may not enjoy every minute of it – when I’m trying to write an essay I do wonder why on earth I committed myself to this – but that’s not the same as having a background culture of thinking education an annoying imposition rather than a worthwhile privilege. And no-one should excuse poor quality teaching on the grounds that education is inherently valuable – it still matters to engage and interest in as far as possible. But education is part of being human, part of developing as a person, part of becoming better able to serve others. It’s worthwhile.
*College: UK sixth form college: typically ages 16-18/19. I was actually 15-16 the year I was doing chemistry, but the circumstances were a bit odd. Some secondary schools (age 11-16) have a sixth form attached; it is normally the separate institutions that are referred to as colleges. They often have adult students as well.
** I believe it was said of Mother Theresa that she did this in Calcutta, but I don’t know the reference.